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The proxy war

Darryl Campbell | Sunday, April 26, 2009

Poor Randall Terry. He has proclaimed himself heir to Martin Luther King, Jr., a divinely-inspired mystic, and the leader of a capital-C Crusade to purge the church of its “treacherous elements.” His unofficial inquisition is armed not only with pictures of fetuses and sexual metaphors (“this is like the rape of Catholic orthodoxy, sociology and justice”), but also with an unerring ability to find its way into the pages of The Observer at least twice a week. If we believe the media – national or local, including this paper – we might get the impression that huge ideological battles are sweeping Notre Dame’s political landscape. But on the ground, things seem far less histrionic.

True, the abortion debate has a much higher public profile than it did in January. But there is no circus at Notre Dame, except an imaginary one that exists in the media and in the minds of a few vocal partisans. And Terry’s message hasn’t clicked with the vast majority of the Notre Dame community. The man who has literally said “hate is good” has, true to form, lashed out not only at expected targets (the president, the University administration) but also at Notre Dame Response for being “deluded and diluted,” and at Bishop D’Arcy, whose statements have condemned both the University and Terry himself. Unsurprisingly, most members of the Notre Dame community have realized that Terry is a member of what Teddy Roosevelt called the “lunatic fringe” – and have kept him where he belongs: at arm’s length.

So I’d be extremely surprised if anyone’s opinion about abortion has changed all that much thanks to protests, television soundbites or even snotty newspaper columns like this one. After all, the furor over President Obama’s upcoming speech is not entirely, or even mostly, about abortion. Instead, people are using it as an excuse to bring up myriad other debates. Does a Catholic university have to somehow reconcile its religious and instructional goals, or is there no dichotomy there at all? Is adherence to orthodoxy the ultimate standard to which Notre Dame should hold any or all its representatives? Should a Church, facing declining membership (down 2 million since 2006) and scandal, align itself with single-issue hyperpartisans like Randall Terry, or opt for a different strategy? And what is the last arbiter of moral outrage – and political action – for Catholics: its ecclesiastical hierarchy, or the individual worshipper?

Almost no one pays lip service to the fact that Notre Dame’s commencement is a ceremony for students anymore. But the competition for campus-wide attention (even more so than the national spotlight) shows how much people of all political and ideological stripes are competing for the hearts and minds of Notre Dame graduates. For those of you who are about to graduate, remember that from here on out, you’ll be thrown into a world of groupthink and mutual ignorance, where political engagement consists simply of talking past one another and exchanging half-truths and innuendoes. If we’ve taught you well, you’ll continue to engage in critical, principled reflection on ideas and issues long after you leave campus.

Darryl Campbell is a second-year graduate student in history, and also writes for the Web publication The Bygone Bureau at www.bygonebureau.com

He can be contacted at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.